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«Distance learning, virtual classrooms, and teaching pedagogy in the Internet environment Kimberly C. Harper, Kuanchin Chen, David C. Yen à ...»

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Technology in Society 26 (2004) 585–598


Distance learning, virtual classrooms, and

teaching pedagogy in the Internet environment

Kimberly C. Harper, Kuanchin Chen, David C. Yen Ã

Department of Decision Sciences and MIS, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056, USA


The Internet and distance learning have created a new business and a new teaching pedagogy. The purpose of this paper is to show how data communication technologies have

affected distance learning and pedagogy, and help teachers and students in virtual classrooms. In particular, the paper addresses the history of distance learning, current issues, the federal government’s role, and four specific areas of improvement: curricula change, new patterns of interaction, changes in organizational structures, and the roles and activities of participants in both business and academic distance-learning environments.

# 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Computer based training; Correspondence education; Distance learning; E-learning; Teaching pedagogy

1. Introduction Distance education has become widespread in the past 10 years. Universities and corporations are seeking to become involved in this ‘‘re-invented’’ form of education. The total enrollment in courses delivered through various forms of distance education between 1997 and 1998 has been estimated at 1.6 million students [3].

Higher education has become a booming business, with annual revenues of 225 billion dollars in 1999. It appears that universities, corporations, and governments are profiting from this new learning environment [27].

Considering that more people are pursuing a second degree after earning a baccalaureate, and more full-time employees are seeking to advance their careers by taking training courses, the virtual education market will continue to grow.

à Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-513-529-4826; fax: +1-513-529-9689.

E-mail address: yendc@muohio.edu (D.C. Yen).

0160-791X/$ - see front matter # 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1016/j.techsoc.2004.08.002 586 K.C. Harper et al. / Technology in Society 26 (2004) 585–598 According to Freddolino and Sutherland [11], many distance education students are not traditional students. Some are adults seeking to build a second or third career, while others are professionals seeking to advance in their current positions. While large investment firms like Merrill Lynch, BancOne, and venture capital groups are investing in distance learning, online learning is still in its infancy.

In this paper, we will examine several aspects of distance learning in both academic and business environments. We begin with a definition of distance learning, continue with its history, and follow this by a discussion of the government’s role in shaping the current setting for distance education. Discussions focus on four aspects of improvements (curricula change, new patterns of interaction, changes to organizational structure, and roles and activities of participants) in both academic and business environments.

2. Distance learning: an overview

Almost every new media has touched the educational system in some way but distance learning is a re-invented method of education, rather than a new one. In its early days, distance learning consisted of correspondence education, televised courses, collections of videotapes, and cassette recordings [32]. Slide projectors, microfiche, and microfilm allowed students to recall history via photo negatives.

Cable television, VCR’s, and Satellite TV allowed students to participate in classes on their own time. The Internet, Intranets, and the creation of local area networks (LAN) and wide area networks (WAN) have given students the opportunity to experience distance learning beyond pre-recorded classes and films. Table 1 shows the history of distance education.

While the field of distance learning using the Internet and large networks is still young, finding a clear and concise definition for it is no easy task. For the purposes of this paper, we will use the definition of the United States Distance Learning Association’s (USDLA) National Policy Recommendations.

The USDLA states that distance learning involves teaching through the use of telecommunication technologies, which transmit and receive numerous materials through voice, video, and data.

Furthermore, distance learning must have a delivery mode that uses some form of telecommunication. This means that a course must be delivered via television, videocassette disc, film, radio, computer networks or other devices that use some audio–video format. In the early applications of distance learning, the major forms of communication between a student and a remote location were television, video cassettes, or audio tape cassettes. With the growth of the Internet and large networks, students now have an opportunity to utilize asynchronous and synchronous communication tools, as well as to choose the time, place, and pace of their education.

K.C. Harper et al. / Technology in Society 26 (2004) 585–598 587

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If used correctly, distance learning holds a great promise for education. A frequently cited advantage of distance learning is the potential reduction of financial burdens for colleges, universities and other educational institutions. Distance learning allows remote classrooms to reduce overcrowding and improve teacher to student ratios. It also gives students the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of fellow students.

Distance learning gives businesses the opportunity to retain a workforce that is capable and up-to-speed. Employee training, fees for conferences, educational seminars, and the costs of hiring consultants can be reduced when companies utilize distance learning and computer based training (CBT) courses. They enable organizations to cross geographic boundaries, cut costs, and share knowledge. But it is expensive: instructors must be paid, and funds must be allocated for the creation, maintenance, and operation of networks that support distance-learning classrooms. In some cases, distance learning can also increase costs for both students and the institutions [14].

588 K.C. Harper et al. / Technology in Society 26 (2004) 585–598

3. The history and evolution of distance learning

Distance learning is an old idea with a new name. Its foundation goes back to the early 1700s when through correspondence students and instructors exchanged information (assignments, notes, and tests) through the postal system or other modes of transportation. Correspondence courses grew because of a need to educate and entertain people. But on-time delivery of mail was a problem in the early days. Because the postal service was slow, students and teachers could not count on regular deliveries. Historical accounts indicate that while correspondence education was established in America, as well as Great Britain, in the 1700s, it took the establishment of the United States Postal Service to firmly secure correspondence education in America.

‘‘In 1891, Thomas J. Foster provided pamphlets by mail to teach mine safety’’ [24]. Anna Eliot Ticknor ‘‘... is credited by some as being the founder of correspondence study in the United States’’ [20]. Ms. Ticknor founded the ‘‘Society to Encourage Studies at Home’’, an educational correspondence society that offered 24 courses with six different departments. Young women of leisure, who sought to enhance their education while confined to their homes, made use of these courses [24].

As America’s population grew, college and university faculties sought new ways to share information across geographic boundaries. According to USDLA’s National Policy Recommendations, Rainey Harper, President of the University of Chicago, organized a correspondence study department in 1892 which pioneered distance education. In a rapidly growing economy, the education of a large segment of society became a necessity. In 1890, many states passed laws that required young people to attend school. In an attempt to combat low attendance and high dropout rates, schools turned to correspondence education to help relieve some of these problems.

While correspondence courses were started by academic institutions, it soon became a way to train employees. ‘‘By 1943 the United States Armed Forces Institute used correspondence courses to train individuals.’’ Businesses began to use it as a way to train and re-train employees, to supplement in-class instruction and to cut costs [20].

As early as 1928, courses were offered via radio. Television provided educators with a new medium. This integration of technology and education became known as distance learning. The current widespread use of computers, networks, and the Internet, is yet another medium that offers much more than correspondence courses could offer in the past.

4. Government involvement The government made attempts to join the world of distance learning with the creation of the National Information Infrastructure (NII).

K.C. Harper et al. / Technology in Society 26 (2004) 585–598 589 In nonlegal terms, aggregate of all information technology required to create a universal, affordable, integrated, seamless, interactive and flexible digital communications infrastructure in the United States that facilitates unimpeded anyto-any connectivity for any commercial, industrial, educational, and governmental purpose [22].

Many feel that the NII will improve the American educational system, create jobs, educate the public, and bridge the gap in the ‘‘digital divide’’. In order to accomplish these goals, the government must act both as user and regulator. Many departments in the federal government are clients of distance-learning providers.

NASA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense all use distance learning for employee training and education. These three departments formed the National Research and Education Network (NREN). NREN seeks to support the development and implementation of a national broadband network for applications such as supercomputing, and to test and demonstrate advanced information technologies before they are deployed commercially.

The government also funds various distance-learning initiatives. The best known and widespread is the public broadcasting system (PBS). Although some may not think of it as a source of distance learning, PBS broadcasts television programs that are intended to teach first and only entertain second. PBS’s mission is to inform, to inspire, and to educate [23]. PBS has numerous educational programs for both children and adults.

In 1997, the federal government took steps to create a distance-learning system that would encompass government, industry, and universities. The advanced distributed learning (ADL) initiative was introduced with the intention of creating collaborative projects of research, development, and assessment of new learning technology prototypes, guidelines, and specifications [28]. ADL seeks to facilitate development of common standards; lower development costs; promote widespread collaboration that satisfy common needs; and make learning software accessible, interpretable, durable, reusable, adaptable, and affordable.

The government also regulates distance learning. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a mandate to make sure that network service providers meet telecommunication standards. ‘‘The federal government establishes a benchmark that must be followed by the local authorities’’ [22].

Recent passage of the Internet Equity and Education Act further enhances the incentives for the development of distance-learning programs and demonstrates the government’s role in regulating distance education. Higher education institutions offering more than 50% of their courses as correspondence courses were not eligible to participate in federal Pell grant, loans, and other financial aid programs, until the passage of this law. In addition, the idea of an academic year has also been redefined. Twelve hours of regularly scheduled instruction (lectures, exams, preparation for exams, etc.) had been considered a week of instruction for those programs using credit hours but are not on semester, trimester, or quarter system.

Under this law, a week of instruction is defined as at least one day of instruction a week either online or in class. As a result, those institutions teaching most of their 590 K.C. Harper et al. / Technology in Society 26 (2004) 585–598 courses by telecommunications are now considered higher education educations for the purpose of federal financial aid. The goal of this act was to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to offer the opportunities for higher education through online or telecommunication devices.

5. Current issues

The most important issue is instructor preparedness and student attitudes. If distance-learning courses are properly designed and delivered, students can learn as much as in traditional on-campus courses [14]. But if students do not perceive the technology as useful, they will not be receptive to distance education [7]. There are also geographic issues that must be addressed. While distance learning can cross geographic boundaries, it also has the potential to break cultural rules, norms, and educational learning systems.

McCambell points out that students taking distance-learning courses should seek a setting for taking a course with little disturbance, ensure that their systems are set up properly, and make a commitment to complete the course in a timely fashion [21].

The inability of teachers to develop the necessary skills, to adopt a positive attitude, and to develop the needed pedagogy are other important issues affecting the creation of distance-learning communities. These communities must also address technical and curriculum issues. To create a virtual classroom, one must plan for the following tasks: advising, curriculum development, content development, articulation and credentialing, learning delivery, hardware choice, and assessment.

In the sections that follow, the authors will elaborate the following four issues

related to distance learning in both higher education and business environments:

(a) curricula change, (b) new patterns of interaction, (c) changes in structure of organizations, and (d) roles and activities of participants.

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